Every year, by this time, I am inclined to put away the Christmas carol CDs that I have collected over the years. While commercial establishments start playing Christmas music (or Christmas muzak!) right after Halloween, I tend to wait as long as I can, and this is usually about the second or third week of December. Then, I play this music virtually exclusively for a couple of weeks.
As a child, I remember we would start to practice Christmas carols with the coming of Advent, the first being “Venez Divin Messie!” — so full of anticipation, hope and longing. As I was going to grade school in a French Canadian community, most of the carols were French ones, although we learned to sing “Silent Night” in German, and I remember a number of carols were sung in Latin, such as “Adeste Fideles.” We sang a number of these carols during Midnight Mass, which always began with the best tenor of the choir singing “Minuit, Chrétiens.”
Christmas has inspired some of the most beautiful music in the western tradition over the centuries. And although today I am more inclined to celebrate the Winter Solstice than the Christian festival, Christmas carols continue to be part of the seasonal celebration.
About 30 years ago, when I started to collect CDs, among my first Christmas carol purchases were the two albums by Andrew Parrot’s Taverner Consort singers and players. The first is The Carol Album: Seven Centuries of Christmas Music (1989). The second album by these performers came out in 2000. There were others, such as A Renaissance Christmas Celebration with the Waverly Consort, all part of period instrument performance and practice which has had a special place in my musical preferences over the years.
I seem to add one or two CDs of Christmas carols to my collection every year, the most recent being the extraordinary Surrounded by Angels by the Ensemble Galilei. As the gentle reader will have gathered by now, I have no interest in renditions of Christmas carols by popular singers, with the possible exception of “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby. Even the productions of opera singers singing Christmas carols does not find favour with me, with the possible exception of “Minuit, Chrétiens.” The version I remember was sung by Richard Verreau.
There is other Christmas music I play at this time of the year. Certainly Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and various Christmastide cantatas are played, beginning with his Advent Cantatas. The performances by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists (conducted by John Eliot Gardiner) of this extraordinary music are among the best available.
It is also at about this time that I play Berlioz’ “L’Enfance du Christ” at least once, before putting away all of the Christmas music away for another year.